After a five-day passage from Jamaica, San Miguel arrived at Shelter Bay, near the city of Colon. The marina there is a hub for sailors waiting to transit the Panama Canal. After the boat was measured (apparently official vessel specifications are not adequate for canal authorities) and assigned a transit date of April 28, we set off for the San Blas island chain, which begins about 70 nm northeast of Colon.
I met Edgar and his family on the island of Chichime where they had moved a few months earlier. Their home consisted of three huts with palm-leaf roofs, hammocks for sleeping, and a fire ring for cooking. They mainly lived on coconuts and fish, but sometimes bought bread and produce from the mainland. Edgar, his cousin and I set out with some other sailors to fish on the reef on the opposite side of the island. Edgar and his cousin caught some big spider crabs with their bare hands and I managed to shoot a large jack, part of which I exchanged for one of the crabs.
Once we arrived back in Shelter Bay we began preparing to transit the canal. Opened in 1914, the Panama Canal was one of the greatest engineering feats of its time. An estimated 25000 people died during its construction, mainly from malaria, typhoid fever, and yellow fever. The United States controlled the Canal Zone until the end of 1999 when it was handed over to Panama. Today on each side of the canal, an additional set of locks, adjacent to the first, are being constructed to allow a higher volume of shipping traffic, to be completed in 2013. It costs about US $1500 for a 50-ft yacht to transit the canal, and up to $500k for container vessels. According to our canal agent, canal business accounts for 8% of Panamanian gross domestic product (its third largest contributor, behind sales in the duty-free zone and tourism).
The canal authorities require that each private yacht have a captain and at least four others to serve as line-handlers. For this reason many of the sailors waiting to transit with their own boat will go through with other boats beforehand, aiding the skipper and scouting out the process before taking part themselves. Serving as a line-handler is also popular among travelers who want to experience the canal. Line-handlers are a hot commodity; all a prospective crewmember has to do is walk down the dock and inquire with a few boats or put a sign up on the marina message board.
In this way Francois and I helped a Dutch family transit the canal on their 47-foot Beneteau Boomerang. At 4 pm we arrived with the boat near the entrance of Gatun locks, and awaited the arrival of our advisor, who would stay onboard and guide us through the entire canal. We rafted up with two other sailboats, using old tires as a buffer between them, and stayed this way until we had passed all three ascending locks, which we shared with a container vessel and a tugboat. Upon entering the first lock men on both sides of the raft threw us monkey’s fists on lines to which we attached our own heavy lines. They hauled up our lines and attached them to the top of the side walls. The large steel doors closed and water was allowed to flow from the succeeding uphill lock through large pipes, creating strong currents and vortices. As the water level rose, the two boats on the sides of the three-boat raft quickly took up the slack forming in the lines attaching us to the side walls. Doing this job poorly is what causes most incidents. After the water level rose to the level of the second lock, the doors opened and we were allowed to move forward.
. Like most canal systems, the locks in the Panama Canal function by gravity alone, such that water flows downhill from Gatun and Miraflores lakes and into the ocean, requiring no active water pumping. In fact, the system harnesses this massive flow of water to generate hydroelectric power. The lakes were created artificially by damming several rivers, most notably the River Chagres, which continually supply the lakes with water such that they rarely become low.
In two weeks I passed through the canal on three different boats. The bus from Panama City on the Pacific side back to Colon costs around $2.00 US.
After later transiting with San Miguel I returned to Shelter Bay to meet with the crew of Allegra II, who were delivering this boat from Italy to Australia. They were seeking crew and agreed to take me along into the Pacific. Allegra II is a 50-ft Lagoon catamaran built in France in 2007. She is powered by a mainsail and genoa (1100 and 800 ft2 respectively), two 75-hp Yanmar diesel engines (each consuming approximately 1.3 l h-1) and a diesel generator. She has a gennaker (1400 ft2) that draws best between apparent wind angles of 90° and 150°. She has four staterooms, five heads, two refrigerators and two freezers. Needless to say life onboard is comfortable.
Everyone has a story about dealing with the bureaucratic system in a foreign country and this one is mine. Before arriving I had heard conflicting stories about the immigration procedure for Panama. Some spoke of a new law requiring a $110 visa. Some said that the visa was not necessary. Some said that the visa was required but they in particular had not been asked to pay. Some said the visa was technically required, but if you planned to simply pass the canal, you would not be asked for it. Some said if you check into the country in Panama City the fee is only $10. More disturbing is that the people relating these requirements were not only foreign sailors, but also professional government agents. When I signed onto the crew of Allegra II, the agent dealing with our customs and immigration told me I had not obtained a visa when I entered the country and it was imperative that I get a visa before being “stamped out” of the country.
The first immigration office I arrived at was the wrong one. I was told to go to 11th St. There I found an unmarked building with a staircase leading up to several offices. I told the woman at the desk my situation: I had entered the country as crew on a sailboat two weeks earlier, I was not aware that I needed a visa and I now planned to get on another boat to exit the country. Nope. It was impossible that I get the visa without copies of the former boat’s registration, crew list, cruising permit, a letter from the captain, two personal ID pictures, and two copies of my passport and entry stamp. Well. That was going to be impossible, since San Miguel was in a different city. Next try. After passing through the canal with Allegra II I met with Francois and obtained copies of San Miguel’s documents. Next morning. Immigration official at the marina: you don’t need a visa, we’ll just stamp you out of the country tomorrow. Interesting. In any case the agent we are using says that’s impossible and the captain wants it done right. Next try. $20 taxi ride to the immigration office in Panama City. Woman at the desk: “I guess I can give you a visa if you really want one, it’s going to cost $100.” Done.
If Panama is going to institute a new law and require $100 visas, they should make the process clear to everyone, including their own government officials.